Why is there a 21-foot-long model of the Space Shuttle sitting in a semi-rundown NOHO cemetery?
In 1924, architect Kenneth MacDonald, Jr. and sculptor Federico Giorgi built the Valhalla Memorial Rotunda, a structure now known as the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum, on the eastern edge of Pierce Brothers Valhalla Cemetery. The shrine is a 78-foot-tall structure of marble, mosaic, and sculpted figures and is the burial site for fifteen pioneers of aviation. Originally intended to be the entrance to Valhalla Memorial Park, visitors drove through the arches via Valhalla Drive, off Hollywood Way. The Rotunda, with its graceful garden walls and three reflection pools became a tourist attraction, and was used for musical concerts, radio broadcasts and other public events during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The statues and decorative moldings were created by sculptor Federico A. Giorgi, who had created the massive Babylonian elephants and lions for the film “Intolerance.”
In 2007 the Portal was joined by a more modern, just as impressive, companion: a 21-foot-long model of the Space Shuttle (It’s big, but not as big as the real thing, which is 122 feet long).
In keeping with the Rotunda’s theme of rebirth, the Space Shuttle memorial is also an example of creative recycling. It is, in fact, a former Hollywood movie prop, used in the ridiculous 2003 sci-fi disaster film The Core, where it played the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
It is a memorial to the crews of the doomed Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. The insignia for Columbia is painted on its left side, the Challenger on its right. Plaques in the lawn directly below the insignia portray the seven astronauts who perished in their respective spacecraft. The crew members aren’t buried with the other aviation stars at the Portal, but the Shuttle model serves as their cenotaph.
In 1930, Union Airport (now Burbank Glendale Pasadena Airport) was opened and aircraft noise over the Rotunda prompted cemetery management to close the east entrance.
A new main entrance at Cahuenga and Victory was opened, and vehicle traffic through the Rotunda ceased. The floor area beneath the dome was eventually enclosed with an iron fence, and the three reflection pools were filled in.
Cemetery employee and aviation enthusiast James Gillette was impressed by the Rotunda’s close proximity to the airport and Lockheed Aircraft Company. He conceived a plan to use the structure as a shrine to aviation and worked to that end for two decades. On December 17, 1953, the Rotunda was rededicated as the “Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation” in a ceremony presided over by Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker. In attendance were members of the Early Birds and other pioneer aviation organizations who were contemporaries of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Com. Richard E. Byrd.
On July 18, 1969, in an event so ironic it is almost unbelievable, a small twin-Piper Navajo, owned by United Clearing Inc., that had just taken off from Burbank Airport, tragically crashed into the dome of The Portal of the Folded Wings.
The pilot and one passenger were killed. Another survived. The crash was blamed on pilot error, and the dome was extensively damaged. It was soon repaired to the tune of $70,000.
Following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park worked with historic preservation specialists to restore the structure which had been long neglected. In 1996, Giacinta Bradley Koontz, aviation historian, was hired as Director of the Portal to oversee its rededication and to create a museum within the structure to honor the pioneers who are buried beneath the dome, and the craftsmanship of MacDonald and Giorgi.
It wouldn’t be a cemetery without the Freemasons…
… or a Virgin.
While there are many non-aviation notables buried here including, Oliver Hardy, the wrestler Gorgeous George, white-haired psychic Criswell, “The Last Stooge,” Curly-Joe De Rita and even the voice of “Jiminy Cricket”, the real star of Valhalla Memorial Park is The Portal of the Folded Wings and the miniature replica of the Space Shuttle that watches over it.